For a film about a couple of con artists, Focus feels like a con job of a film. Set up around the ever-charming Will Smith and natural newcomer Margot Robbie, the film is largely content to focus on the two during the course of the film, all while suggesting that more is happening. The suggestion is that there’s a love story, of some sort, developing during the film’s two time periods, split by a three year gap. In reality, though, the film is the personification (filmification?) of the techniques Nicky and Jess engage in: distraction to lift some money off of their victims.
And while that would normally bother me, it actually works here, at times.
The film opens with Nicky taking Jess, a conning newcomer who attempts to rip him off, under his wing. They eventually end up in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, where Jess very quickly picks up a set of skills from Nicky and his crew. They manage to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from tourists in small amounts, before engaging in a bigger bet on Game Day. Nicky and Jess also strike up a personal relationship that Nicky abruptly ends. Three years later, Nicky and Jess meet again in Buenos Aires, as both have connections to a successful racecar driver (Rodrigo Santoro).
The key to the film’s success, as it is, is the casting. The film was originally developed by writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa as a way to bring their Crazy, Stupid, Love. stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone back together, and based on their chemistry in that film, it’s easy to see why they’d want to try to recapture that magic. When Gosling and Stone dropped out, the film was recast with Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart. That pairing also fell through, which led to the combination of Smith and Robbie. Whether or not the previous pairings would have worked, the film is lucky to have these two stars. Smith has rarely worked in this type of film, and it requires his natural charisma in combination with a maturity that comes with Smith’s (graceful) aging. Robbie, meanwhile, exhibits the kind of rare combination of talent and beauty that is already propelling her to bigger gigs (see: her upcoming turn as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad).
Of course, performances alone can’t sustain a film, and Focus does offer some scenes that are worth the price of admission. Even if the film is lacking in substance, Focus does know how to set the proper tone and energy. It’s a very slick film, and while it’s formulaic – the multiple endings shouldn’t shock anyone – it pushes the formula just enough to keep things interesting. It’s also light enough to not really register once it’s done, but pleasing enough for most audiences to not mind.